Credit: Western National Group

Like most people, Laura Khouri did not grow up aspiring to make a career for herself in the world of multifamily real estate. “I fell into it back in 1985 by answering an advertisement in the newspaper for a 'Gal Friday' and then graduated from there into what they still called a secretary,” says Khouri, who has remained with that firm, Irvine, Calif.-based Western National Group in all of the years since, adding titles such as administration manager, loan department manager, risk manager, vice president of human resources, president of ancillary services group, and senior vice president to her resume.

In June, Western National named Khouri president of Western National Property Management, where she’ll oversee the management of 22,750 units across California, Arizona, and Utah with a team of 700 on-site real estate professionals to back her up. Khouri chatted with Multifamily Executive senior editor Chris Wood this week to share her thoughts on technology, mystery shopping, and her philosophy on leadership.

MFE: Laura, you have been with Western National for 25 years. As you assume the reins of the property management division, what in your mind is job No.1? 
My opening speech to the team revolves around the concepts of “care and connect.” Fear and intimidation are words that do not exist here at Western National. The team that I have has been beaten down, not from an internal standpoint but from an external standpoint, given our economy and constantly watching rents drop and concessions increase. I want to step back and take a minute to thank them for everything that they’ve done. Care, connect, and passion sound silly, but if people are happy to come to work and know that things are turning around and there is new leadership that is focused on acknowledgement, you’d be surprised what that does to spur productivity.

MFE: What are some of the ways to keep property managers motivated given the economy?
One of the tactics we use is to tell our on-site staff is visualization. We ask them to imagine that we have just given them a wheelbarrow filled with $40 million dollars, and that we have dumped the wheelbarrow in their office and said, "This is my asset. I need you to manage it for me. I need you to watch it. I need you to protect it. I need you to grow it." That is a visual that everyone understands, and we have always used it as the launching point for all of our professional training.

MFE: Does training represent a key area of investment at Western National right now?
We actually completely renovated our leasing program last year in terms of training and development for our leasing consultants. We all have standards in the industry: everyone stands up and smiles and shakes hands. To give more depth to that process, we put them through DISC [behavioral and personality] profiling training so they are able to more easily identify the four major personalities and connect with who is standing in front of them in the leasing office on that basis. We also implemented a “care and connect” training and development program last year to provide more personalized levels of customer service. The program was so successful that we just ranked No. 1 with Ellis Mystery Shopping in the nation for both the first and second quarters of this year. We also have the overall highest rankings in the history of the Ellis Mystery Shopping program. Of course, now the pressure is on. 
MFE: The word is you do quite a bit of mystery shopping yourself.
It’s not Undercover Boss or anything like that, but I do go out on the weekends with my daughter and son and visit our properties. I’ll hit five or so communities on any given day, and I walk in with a prospective renter’s perspective. I want to know how they are treated, and I want to see everything with fresh eyes. If I am not out there touching, feeling, knowing, I cannot look at my peers on the executive committee and express certainty about the strategic positioning of assets. I don’t micro-manage at all; I just have to be involved. It’s who I am. It makes for better management to get out there and know the product. Sitting in my office directing people all day long is not going to make us a better company.

MFE: How do you size up the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Western National portfolio?
Our markets turned into shoppers markets last year, and we had more price shopping than we’ve ever experienced. It’s all about the dollars right now, and how do you combat that in the market? Well, even for people that are motivated by the bottom line dollar, the truth is that they are going to rent where they feel the most comfortable within their price range. To satisfy that, one of my goals is to make Western National the place to work. In our industry, you can go to Alliance, to Legacy, to BRE, to any number of large, respectable management firms. My job is to make Western the place that everyone is clamoring to be at. To do that, we have to have great performance as well as make the residents feel at home with us.

MFE: Do you think technology can assist in that process?
When I started at Western National, there was no such thing as a personal computer at everyone’s desk, but we have since invested in our infrastructure to the point where technology is actually one of our main selling tools. We just took over a 500-unit building and in our presentation one of the things that intrigued them the most was our back-office infrastructure, as it allows, through the investor portal, the ability to log-on at any time and see operating statements, see where we are live with occupancies, and review other fundamentals.

MFE: Do you likewise think the resident prospect is clamoring for more technology?
Yes, but it can be difficult to continue to touch the resident if everything you are doing is online. Given the fact that we probably control an entire city (if you took all of our 75,000 residents), not all of them are Gen X or Gen Y or computer-savvy, and some of them want to see and touch the apartment and the staff and relate more with where they want to live. In the future, we will continue to offer those types of online services, but as a way to complement our core encouragement, which is for people to come and see us. Yes, there will probably be a growing demand for doing everything online. We’ll have that, but it won’t be something that we’ll tout.

Editor's Note: Laura Khouri will be a featured speaker this fall at the Multifamily Executive Conference in Las Vegas, held Oct. 4-6, 2010, at the Bellagio Las Vegas. To register, visit